Farmworkers Endure Brutal Conditions During Historic Heat Wave

The elderly and children are among the thousands of agricultural workers who are harvesting blueberries and cherries throughout the Pacific Northwest's 'heat dome.'
United Farmworkers
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

The Pacific Northwest—known for its abundant rainfall, gloomy skies, and mild seasons—is not prepared for extreme heat waves like the ongoing 'heat dome.' Roads are melting. Homes don't have cooling technology. Public transit is down. 


Perhaps no one is bearing greater exposure to this heat wave than the region's agricultural workers who are scrambling to harvest the region's cherries and blueberries before they shrivel up and die because of the heat. These workers are not guaranteed many basic labor rights and protections offered to workers in other industries. 

In recent days, labor organizers have received reports of fruit pickers in the region suffering heat-related illnesses, which can include nausea, confusion, slurred speech, and unconsciousness. Many workers say their employers haven't set up tents for shade and require them to supply their own water. Meanwhile, children as young as 12 years old (which is legal due to the exclusion of agricultural workers from fundamental labor laws) and elderly workers in their 60s and 70s have been working in the cherry and blueberry fields in Washington and Oregon, labor organizers told Motherboard. Motherboard has also reviewed photo evidence of children working in cherry fields in recent days.

"There's no shade where I work," a cherry picker in Yakima County in Washington, where temperatures have exceeded 100 degrees for the past three days, told Motherboard on Monday in Spanish. Motherboard granted the worker anonymity because she feared retaliation from her employer. "A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to." 


On Tuesday, which is expected to be another day of record-smashing heat with temperatures in the farmland of Oregon and Washington reaching over 110 degrees, workers are making do by starting their shifts earlier at 4am and 5am to avoid the worst of the heat, if their contractors and employers allow for it. 

"This year has been extremely hot. In the stores, they already don’t want the cherries because they’re overripe," said the cherry picker in Yakima County, Washington who is from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. 

States with typically mild weather, Washington and Oregon are not prepared to protect farmworkers from heat. In Oregon, legislators have been working on drafting enforceable rules, such as access to shade, breaks, and water, and workload guidelines, since before the current heat wave; these rules will not be completed until September. Washington, meanwhile, has weak rules to protect workers from heat which includes having heat exposure prevention plans, but does not require specific employers to provide break times or shade. 


Agricultural workers and organizers in Benton City, Washington. (United Farmworkers)


United Farmworkers

Because agricultural workers are paid a piece rate (currently about 30 cents per pound of cherries) rather than per hour, workers are pressured to skip breaks and push through sweltering heat. 

"There is a perverse incentive to work as fast as you can not to hydrate to the extent that you’d need bathroom breaks," said Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farmworkers of America, a labor union that represents agricultural workers in the Pacific Northwest.

Due to racist labor laws dating back to the 1930s—agricultural workers in the United States have long been excluded from many of the rights and benefits that protect workers in the United States, such as minimum wage laws and overtime pay. Agricultural workers—with the exception of those in a few states—are also exempt from union rights and child labor laws. These exemptions have created a work environment that few U.S. citizens are willing to endure, and these jobs have long been filled by migrant workers. In Washington and Oregon, most agricultural workers are undocumented or on H-2A visas from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. 

This year, agricultural workers in the Pacific Northwest have already weathered ice storms and wildfires, causing massive upheaval including the destruction of their homes. 

"We are asking for short term solutions to mitigate the harm but in the long term we need to see action on climate change," said Reyna Lopez, director of the Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, a labor union that represents 7,000 farmworkers in Oregon. "This year has been a roller coaster of climate conditions. It's the most marginalized communities that are first feeling those effects."